What a strange day this is. There’s almost a whiplash effect to it. Our service opens with a grand procession as we sing an exuberant hymn about a young man’s triumphal entry into the holy city of Jerusalem, with crowds cheering and waving their palms. It all seems like a grand spectacle.
Some years ago my family and I were at Salisbury Cathedral in England for Palm Sunday, and the congregation on that chilly spring morning gathered outside for the beginning of the service, long palm fronds in hand. In the front were hordes of children surrounding a somewhat nervous donkey appointed to lead the parade into the church. Slowly and somewhat chaotically we followed the donkey in. It wasn’t quite Disney, but it was impressive.
But then as we’ve seen just seen, after the parade things quickly turn dark, the cries of “Hosanna” fade, and soon we are hearing a crowd calling out, “Crucify him!” In a matter of minutes the story that began in joy has led us to a twisted figure hanging on a cross. It can seem disorienting and confusing. What’s going on here? What are we supposed to be thinking and feeling?
The best window into the meaning of the cross I’ve come across in a long time is a movie that came out last year: Gran Torino. Somehow I never imagined viewing Clint Eastwood as a Christ-figure, but that is what he becomes in this riveting film. Clint Eastwood, bear in mind, has made dozens of Westerns, war movies, and cop films, and has seemed always to play the same role—the good guy who goes after the bad guy and manages to win the day by being more violent and better at killing than the bad guys. In his movies the good guys win with guns, testosterone, and bravado. You may remember his movie Dirty Harry with the line, “Go ahead. Make my day.”
In Gran Torino Eastwood turns all that on its head. Walt Kowalski is a bitter retired autoworker grieving the death of his wife and despising almost everyone he encounters. His only real love is his beautifully cared for 1972 Ford Gran Torino, a sacred relic from what he sees as a better world that’s now disappeared. His neighborhood, for example, is more and more filled with Hmong immigrants from Laos, including the family next door. He is constantly stereotyping them and uttering every racist epithet he can come up with. But over time he slowly gets to know his next-door neighbors, and especially we watch a growing bond between him and the teenage girl and her younger brother.
There’s a dangerous gang in the neighborhood that is recruiting the boy for their group, and when he resists joining they beat and rape his sister to intimidate him. This would be the moment for the classic Clint Eastwood/Dirty Harry response. Kowalski drives his pick-up to the gang’s house, stands out front and demands that they come out. They’ve seen him wield his pistol and know he has other weapons and are sure he’s there for revenge. They have their guns ready to blaze. He reaches inside his jacket and the gang members open fire with a barrage of bullets. He collapses to the ground, lying with his arms spread like a cross. You see his hand now, which is holding not a gun but a cigarette lighter.
The police, already summoned by the neighbors, arrest the gang. They have murdered an unarmed man and will be sent safely away to prison for a long time. Kowalski had concluded that the only way his young Hmong friends were going to have any chance for peace was to get rid of the terrifying gang, and the only way to do that was to give up his own life.
It’s a breathtaking ending, and the viewer is left looking at Kowalski’s bullet-riddled body lying in the form of Christ. And what a turn at the end of Eastwood’s career. Violence has always been his answer—now it’s surprising relationships that reach more deep-seated prejudice, it’s human love, and it’s sacrifice. We Christians believe that something like this powerful event is what happened when Christ died on a cross. A man gave up his life to save others. We can’t explain exactly how and why Jesus’ death changes everything, but at the core of our faith is the conviction that what happened on that hill outside Jerusalem has made all the difference. On that day he became our Savior.
Jesus didn’t have to go to Jerusalem. For three years he had travelled around his native Galilee healing, teaching, and announcing that a new way of living he called the Kingdom of God was breaking into their world. Before long, though, he was infuriating the religious leaders and becoming a threat to Roman authorities. He was claiming that their power to enforce and coerce, to intimidate and torture, was in fact empty and that the ultimate power in this world is God’s and its prime character is love.
Now he wanted to take the challenge of God’s Kingdom to the heart of Israel. He had decided to confront the whole web of influences and powers that wounded and diminished ordinary people in his world—oppressive political power, economic disparities, class systems and hierarchies, rigid religious control. He was soon arrested and put on trial by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, and before long orders were issued for his execution. Romans were skilled at torture and crucifixion to discourage troublemakers.
In South Africa the phrase opponents of apartheid used when police were coming after their fellow countryman was, “the System is coming,” which meant the whole set of forces of evil that were imprisoning a people, that were now embodied in the police, were coming. I saw “the System” at work up close in the American South of the 1950s and 1960s especially—a way of thinking that maintained a brutal social order. And here’s the frightening thing: Nice people, good people, participate in the system and adopt its values. Without ever consciously knowing what they are doing, they buy into a world based on power and domination.
Jesus was going to Jerusalem to confront the whole system—the powers, the attitudes, the ways of thinking and relating in both the religious establishment and the Roman Empire that were undermining people’s lives. To Herod and Pilate this looked like the beginning of an insurrection. To the religious leaders this unauthorized rabbi was out of control. He had to go.
Some thirty years ago the exiled leader of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino, had decided to renounce violence and commit himself to nonviolent struggle against the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. He chose to return from his exile to almost certain death. He was choosing to go to his Jerusalem, confronting the powers of the system, but he was shot by the military before he even descended from the plane. His death at the moment changed nothing. Marcos remained as powerful as ever. But his death also changed everything. Two and a half years later Marcos was nonviolently removed from power. For those who had eyes to see, Marcos fell when Aquino fell to the ground.
We Christians believe that when Jesus hung on that cross he was confronting the powers that dominate and diminish human lives. And by enduring the worst that the powers could inflict, and absorbing it with forgiveness and compassion, he revealed a power death couldn’t stop, a love that would not relent, and a God who would not stop working to bring hope and healing.
You could say that on Palm Sunday, Jesus went public. This day marks the end of any thought of Christianity as an otherworldly religion, concerned only with private experiences and getting to heaven. The business of the church, as someone has said, is not the church, but the world for which Christ died. The great Scottish churchman George MacLeod, the founder of the Iona Community, put it this way:
I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the marketplace as well as the steeple of the church. Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross, between two thieves, on the town garbage heap, at a crossroads so cosmopolitan that they had to write his name in Hebrew and Latin and Greek…at the kind of place where cynics talk smut and thieves curse and soldiers gamble.
Jesus confronted the powers, the System, the fear and selfishness in us. He comes today to confront the fear, anger, and bitterness in our lives, our country, and our world. He comes to turn us to care for the outsiders—whether they are Hmong or Nigerian or Hispanic. He comes to turn our hearts to the people of Haiti and to the children in this city torn by fractured families, violent streets, and failing schools.
And on the cross we believe that Jesus is winning for us a freedom and new life we could never receive any other way. That is the great truth of this day: In Christ hanging on the cross we see as much of God as we can ever hope to see—God’s complete self-giving love, God’s identifying with our humanity even in dying, God’s promising us that there is nothing we can face in this life that can separate us from God’s love. Today is a time to ponder, receive, and trust that.
Whether you’re a visitor to Washington or a local, if you don’t do anything else in the next few days of Holy Week I hope you’ll get to an exhibit in the east wing of the National Gallery called “The Sacred Made Real.”
It’s a small show of stunningly powerful religious paintings and wooden sculptures from seventeenth-century Spain. Many are life-sized portrayals of the crucified Christ. Some of the sculptures are painted figures that show every detail of Jesus’ decimated body. You see the hairs on Jesus’ legs, the worn sores on his feet, the lash marks from the whips, his gray face surrendering to rigor mortis, his knees bloodied from falling down carrying the cross.
The figures you see are meditating, pleading, weeping, and the emotional impact is intense. For some visitors it’s too much and they don’t want to stick around. Others are riveted by the genius of the artists and the power of the central figure. This crucifixion isn’t just a story, you realize. It was real and terrible and, in a strange way, awe-inspiring.
I was struck by Francisco Zurrbaran’s Christ on the Cross. All you see is Jesus’ exhausted figure almost glowing in white light as he hangs against a pitch black background. His body seems exhausted. He has absorbed all the violence, hatred, and fear that can be thrown his way, and he hangs in calm dignity, as if somehow victorious. It’s an unforgettable image of what Christ has done.
But there’s more. A light seems to shine out from his agonized body. The soft, glowing light seems to suggest the radiant light of God, and you realize it’s God you’re looking at on the cross. The Creator of the universe has gone through the worst this world can do to set us free. God has taken a barrage of bullets for us.
It makes you think of the words of the great old hymn:
When I survey the wondrous cross
Where the young prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count as loss
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.